Low Turnout Dooms Italian Fertility Referendum

Efforts to loosen Italy's assisted-fertility laws in a national referendum appeared likely to fail Monday because of low voter turnout that could invalidate the balloting — a result that would be a victory for the Vatican's boycott campaign.

The referendum won't count unless turnout over the two days of voting is at least 50 percent-plus one of the electorate. Only 18.7 percent of voters cast their ballots Sunday.

As voting resumed Monday, analysts said the referendum was doomed.

"The referendum is finished, over, done with," Nicola Piepoli, a polling analyst, was quoted as saying in La Repubblica newspaper.

"Few to the polls, the referendum sinks," was the banner headline of Corriere della Sera.

The vote followed weeks of emotionally charged debate.

The Roman Catholic Church (search) waged a fierce campaign to maintain the limitations currently envisioned in the law, including a ban on sperm and egg donation for couples undergoing assisted fertility treatment (search).

The vote was seen as a test of the church's influence in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic but has strayed from church doctrine, notably by approving divorce and abortion in referendums decades ago.

The Italian bishops' conference repeatedly called on voters to abstain, and Pope Benedict XVI (search) endorsed the appeal. The pope has contended that the efforts to overturn parts of the law posed threats to life and the family.

Opponents of the legislation say the law is too restrictive and prevents research to treat diseases.

"People complain but then they never do anything to solve their problems," said 42-year-old Concetta Naclerio, who went to the polls. "The majority of people who didn't vote on the referendum were lazy."

Other Italians blamed the turnout on the Vatican's campaign and the complexity of the issues at stake. Some said it was referendum fatigue. Special ballots on various issues have been called frequently in Italy over the past decade.

The current law limits the number of embryos that can be created to three, forbids sperm or egg donation and prohibits scientific research using embryos.

The referendums ask voters whether Italy should end all those limitations, as well as permit fertile couples with hereditary diseases to screen their embryos.

"It was the right occasion to come to a better law. Instead, unless the situation changes today, we must keep it as it is," said Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo (search), who had campaigned to have the law loosened.

Italian politicians were split, with parties generally telling their voters to decide according to their consciences.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (search) was among the early voters Sunday, but did not say how he cast his ballot. Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) did not disclose if and how he would vote.

Italians have defied the church in two referendums considered milestones for Italian society: Divorce was upheld in 1974 and abortion in 1981. The latter dealt a blow to the late Pope John Paul II (search), who campaigned vigorously against abortion.

The trend seemed to be confirmed by a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, which found that nearly two-thirds of Italians think religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions.